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Central America
Destination

How to get around in Central America

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Before taking my trip to Central America I had scurried the internet to find as much information as I could about transportation and the best way to get around from each country. I would be starting my trip in Mexico and ending my trip in Panama and on a strict budget. However, it wasn’t always easy to find solid information and resulted in a few gaps when it came down to research.


Below is a comprehensive breakdown of how I got around in each country in Central America including Mexico using a mix of shuttles, local buses, and my experience with border crossings. However you decide to get around, you should try the local ‘chicken buses’ at least once. These are basically re-purposed school buses from the US. They are an adventure in itself and you will definitely give you a unique ‘cultural experience’. Although I did hitch-hike to a few local attractions, I was with other backpackers and is NOT something I recommend for solo travels. Hopefully, this post will give you a better picture of how to get around Central America and the form of transport you would like to take from place to place.

This post is based on transportation ONLY.

Mexico

The first country on my three month trip around Central America was Mexico. It was much cheaper to fly into Cancun than any other neighboring country. In terms of transportation in Mexico, I mainly used the ADO buses to get from each destination, then local buses or Collectivo’s (basically you pack as many of you into a shuttle bus which makes the cost cheaper and leaves when it’s full) to get to the main attractions. See below breakdown;

Cancun Airport- Downtown Cancun

From Cancun Airport to my hostel in Downtown Cancun, I caught the ADO bus for 80 pesos then walked to my hostel (using maps.me) for about 10 minutes (Mezcal Hostel).
As I was staying downtown, I caught the local bus for 12 pesos (just opposite the ADO station) to the hotel zone for a much-needed beach day. Don’t be surprised when people get onto the bus and start singing to you, playing their guitar, and then expect you to tip.

Cancun-Playa Del Carmen

Departing Cancun from the ADO bus terminal in downtown Cancun, I then made my way by ADO bus to Playa Del Carmen for 75 pesos. The ADO buses are pretty luxurious and are mostly reliable in terms of schedule. You can also book your tickets for the ADO website online. Be aware that Playa del Carmen has two bus stations so make sure you get off at the right one.

Playa Del Carmen- Cozumel

Next, from Playa Del Carmen, I decided to check out the scuba diving over on Cozumel Island. I took a Winjet ferry (departing every hour) for $350 return from the ferry port which was easy enough. Be aware of the parade of people as you get off the ferry trying to sell you every tour you could think of.

Playa Del Carmen-Tulum

As I came back by ferry to Playa Del Carmen, I then took the ADO bus (main bus station is right in the center of Playa Del Carmen) for $78. While in Tulum it is easy to get around by bike (especially if you’re exploring Cenotes or going to the beach). Alternatively, Collectivo’s are pretty much everywhere here (basically you pack as many of you into a shuttle bus which makes the cost cheaper and leave when its full) an experience not to be missed. If your heading to Coba, most Collectivo’s go in the morning from a specific pick up point on the main road so don’t get caught out and get stuck there if you go in the afternoon. Taxies will take advantage of this and charge you double to get back (your hostel will be able to give you more information on using Collectivos).

Tulum-Bacalar

From Tulum two and a half hours south is a not to be missed piece of paradise called Bacalar. With the ADO buses it’s 274 pesos however there is a cheaper option with Mayab buses but due to mostly locals catching this, you might be sitting in the aisle as the bus does get full pretty quickly especially if you’re going the other way (from Bacalar to Tulum).

Tulum-Belize

As I was meeting a friend in Tulum to attend a wedding in Belize, I traveled back to Tulum to meet her and caught the overnight ADO bus to Belize which cost 765 pesos. (don’t forget you’ll need to pay at the border).

Border Crossing

The border crossing was fairly straight forward, however, there is a charge of 558 pesos in cash. NO CREDIT CARD EXCEPTED! If you had proof that the tax was included with your airline then it’s your lucky day.

Belize

Known for it’s ‘go slow’ vibe in Central America, Belize is the only country in Central America that is predominantly English speaking. Tropic Air & Maya Island Air are the main airlines if you would alternatively prefer a flight here.

Belize City- Caye Caulker


After attending a wedding, I then took the Water Taxi from Belize City to Caye Caulker (leaves on the hour every hour from 7 am till 5 pm) for $22 Belizian Dollar one way. (If you know you’re coming back on the ferry then it’s cheaper to get a return). If your going back to Mexico from here there is a water taxi (water jet) that goes directly from Caye Caulker 3 times per week to Chutemal.

Border Crossing

Heading to Flores in Guatemala, I caught the ferry back to Belize City. There was a shuttle bus waiting at the port that I booked through Zippy Zappy tour operator which took around four hours (depending on the border crossing). Don’t forget there is an exit fee at the border for $20.

Guatemala

Next, was Guatemala, my favorite country of Central America where I spent just over three weeks here and began my adventure in Flores.

Flores- Lanqin

After departing Flores, I used the shuttle service The Great Adventure, for 90 quetzals leaving at 8 am. It was without a doubt the bumpiest ride of my life (if you suffer from motion sickness- stock up for this trip- YOU WILL NEED IT). Your only option to Lanquin is to get a shuttle as local buses don’t take this route. If you’re staying at Zephyr Lodge get ready for the ultimate 4×4 experience to the hostel.

Lanquin- Panachel- San Pedro in Lake Atitlan

Prepare for a long day ahead. Again your only option is to get a shuttle out of Lanquin- from here some people head to the Lake others to Antigua. I opted for the Lake which took 12 hours! A shuttle from Lanquin to Panachel and then managed to get the last boat over to San Pedro which is 25 minutes away. Depending on traffic, you could potentially miss the last boat and will have to stay in Panachel for the night.

San Pedro- San Marcos- San Cruz

While I was staying on San Pedro lake for Spanish School it was easy to visit the other islands by boat for a $25 return.

San Pedro- Antigua

From the Lake I caught a shuttle directly to Antigua with Maya travel. This tour operator does not have a great reputation from speaking to other backpackers and I’ve heard some horror stories of backpackers being left at the side of the road. However, I had no problems with them but definitely ask around before deciding which operator to take. Again, for anyone with motion sickness, there are some pretty windy roads so be prepared.

If you’re a digital nomad or need to work from your laptop then check out C.A Express to get around between the City, Antigua and Panachel.

Border Crossing

The border crossing from Guatemala into Honduras was one of the easiest and quickest that I’ve come across. After Antigua, I took a shuttle with Roneey Shuttle’s early hours at 2 am. The driver even came in with me and waited while I got my stamp and only had to pay 3 dollars. I opted to go direct from Antigua to La Ceiba which took around 11 hours for 550 quetzals (you could also stop off at Copan Ruins in Honduras if you wanted to break the journey up).

Honduras

La Ceiba- Utila

If you’re into scuba diving like myself then you’ll either opt to go to Roatan or Utila, which I decided on Utila. To get to Utila from La Ceiba I took the Utila Dream Ferry @ 16:40 for 600 lempiras each way & 24 lempira boat tax which takes around about an hour depending on sea conditions (tip- if it’s choppy don’t bother sitting upstairs-unless you’re wearing a raincoat).

Utila- Le Ceiba- Leon

After a great week of diving, I caught the 7 am Utila Dream Ferry back to Le Ceiba. From the ferry port to Leon, Roneey Shuttles were there to pick me up and continue my journey. This was my longest day of traveling to date & took 16 hours & was by far the most expensive as I had pre-booked it from Utila costing $70!! Due to the bad reputation of local buses in Honduras, I didn’t want to risk it but it might be worth shopping around for prices and options once you get to Le Ceiba for alternative options.

Border Crossing

At the border crossing, we went in to pay the $14 border charge, answered a few questions then pretty much handed over our passports to our driver. Although I was slightly worried when he disappeared for a short while, this is pretty much the norm for these types of shuttle services so make sure you go with one that has a good reputation.

Nicaragua

Leon- Granada

Although there are shuttle services available throughout Nicaragua, it is super easy & cheap to get around by the local chicken bus. I decided that I would save some dollar and opted for the local mini-bus (same as the collectivos in Mexico) for $2 (bargain). If you’re staying in hostels, there always seems to be someone heading the same way so if your feeling apprehensive then see if you can tag along and go together. The main bus station in Leon is about a 15-minute walk from the city center but do yourself a favor and get a taxi- it gets incredibly hot there and the taxi won’t cost you that much in the grand scheme of things.

Granada- Rivas- Ometepe

From Granada Market jump on the ‘chicken bus’ which takes just over an hour & costs around 50 Cordobas which takes you directly to Rivas bus station (heads up to all the food hawkers that appear to hop on and off the bus). Rivas however, is full of dodgy taxi drivers so make sure you barter a decent price to San Jorge Port (should only cost you a few dollars). Once you arrive, you will have to pay to get into the ferry port then will have to purchase your ticket. From there you will get the ferry over to Ometepe Island for around 50 Cordobas which takes around an hour. Make sure you research where on the island your hostel is as you will most likely have to get a shuttle or tuk-tuk.

Ometepe- San Juan Del Sur

I took the ferry back to San Jorge, however, opted for a taxi from San Jorge ferry port to San Juan Del Sur. My mate had been in a scooter accident on the island and had badly injured his knees. This only cost us $10 each and was only a 45-minute ride away in a rather luxurious air-conditioned taxi. We were lucky that the hostel owner had pre-arranged this for us in Ometepe.

San Juan Del Sur- Monteverde

If your leaving on the Monday after Sunday Funday then prepare for a little wait at the border. Due to me meeting 3 other backpackers that were heading to the border we decided to get a taxi there which was pretty close.

Border Crossing

At the border, we had to pay a 1 dollar exit fee then a 6 dollar entry fee to Costa Rica. Once you’ve paid your fees you then walk for 10 minutes to the Costa Rica border to get your stamp and get asked your purpose/length of stay and to show proof of onward travel out of the country. (I knew a few backpackers who didn’t have it, so you might be lucky enough to get away with it).

Costa Rica

In terms of transportation, Costa Rica my least favorite country to travel around Central America due to transportation costs being very expensive for backpackers. The only way you’re going to save money here is to do it ‘the local way’.

To Monteverde

We then took a local bus, which was extremely luxurious compared to the rest of the buses in Central America, and got off at La Irma. Make sure you let the driver know, it’s pretty much a restaurant, garage and bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Be aware that the last bus from La Irma to Monteverde is at 3 pm so if you miss the bus- well your pretty F*D! You then catch the local bus from the bus stop which takes around 2 hours.

Monteverde- La Fortuna

As a friend of mine was in La Fortuna I decided to go from Monteverde by shuttle for $25. For this particular journey, I had to take the shuttle down to the lake. Then a boat across the lake where the final shuttle was there the other side to take me to the main town.

La-Fortuna- Manuel Antonio

Due to it being rainy season on the Caribbean coast, I didn’t want to miss out on Manuel Antonio. Public transport would have taken me half the price but as I was eager to get there to meet a friend, I opted for a shuttle for $40 which took around 5 hours. Once there it’s easy enough to get a bus from Manuel Antonio to Quepos for 340 Colones and also easy to get the bus if you’re going to the National Park (runs that route every 20 minutes). Interbus is also a reputable shuttle option in Costa Rica which is popular amongst the ‘gringo’ travelers.

Manuel Antonio- San Jose- Puerto Viejo

From Quepos, the bus to Jaco is an hour away if you opt to stop there (cool surfing area). I caught the 9:30 bus to San Jose for 5000 colones which takes around 3/4 hours. I then caught an Uber with other backpackers from that bus terminal to the Terminal de autobus Atlantico Norte which takes around four hours. It’s good to note that there are two towns called Puerta Viejo. This one is Puerta Vieja de Talamanca. Alternatively, you can catch a bus to Limon then on to Puerta Viejo.
The National Park in Cahuita is free & is a short bus ride from Puerta Viejo and costs just 800 colones each way. For the Jaguar Sanctuary which is $20, it is easier and cheaper to rent a bike for $5 and takes about 15/20 minutes (the roads are flat). Alternatively, you could get a tuck-tuck for $2.

Panama

Puerto Viejo- Bocas Del Torro

From Puerta Viejo, I got a shuttle with Caribean Shuttle services and so glad I opted for this option rather than the local bus as this was the most complicated border crossing of Central America. The shuttle cost $30 including the boat to Bocas del Torro and assistance through the border.

Border Crossing

The border crossing is pretty much four stages, firstly you have to pay the exit tax of 500 cordobas ($8) at what looks like a small little shop and hand them your passport. After that, you go up to the office, give them your passport where they’ll ask you a few questions about your purpose/length of stay. You then cross the bridge and are required to fill out an immigration form. After that, I then had to walk to a further kiosk where I was asked again about my stay and to show my proof of onward travel. What a process!

From the border, the shuttle took us to the boat in Almirante which took us over to Bocas del Torro. Bocas del Torro has numerous different islands so make sure you do your research about where your staying, however, it’s easy enough to get a water taxi from island to island.

Bocas- Lost & Found Hostel

After Bocas, all the backpackers I’d met was raving about the Lost & Found Hostel (a hostel in the jungle). I decided to go there and check it out with a friend. From Bocas, you’ll have to take the water taxi back to Almirante which costs $5 then an actual taxi from the port to the bus station for $1/$2 where you will catch the local bus to David. Be sure to let the driver know that you want to stop at Lost & Found Hostel as the bus can get pretty crowded.

Lost & Found- David- Bouquet

From Lost & Found hostel you can get a shuttle for $25 with Hello Panama travel or just flag down a local shuttle/bus at the side of the road and head to David which is the cheaper option as it will only be around $4/$5 dollars. From David catch the bus to Boquete (a more luxurious bus) for $1.75 BARGAIN! (Stay at my favorite hostel- Bambuda Castle). A total of 3 hours of traveling.

Boquete- Panama City

Lastly from Boquete, I caught the 8:00 chicken bus from Boquete to David, however as I just missed the 9 o’clock I had to wait till the 10 o’clock bus (they run every hour) from David to Panama City costing $15 and takes around 8 hours with a 20 minute stop for food in Santiago.

Panama City

Getting around Panama City is easy either using local buses, the metro, or taxi’s (however UBER is so much cheaper).

A few tips to remember when taking local transportation

  • Make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave
  • Keep a close eye on your belongings
  • Watch what the locals are paying
  • There’s not much of a set timetable so it’s better to ask the locals

All in all, Central America was very easy to get around and I thoroughly enjoyed doing parts of it ‘the local way’ saving me a ton of money in the long run. I definitely found Rome2Rio and Centrocoasting very helpful getting from one place to another. Make sure you leave enough time when traveling for border crossings and that you are aware of what time the last mode of transportation is going to a destination as you don’t wont to get stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Do you have any memorable transportation stories to share with us?

Check out my blog on the 12 things you should know before traveling Central America.

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